Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sukkat part 2

I haven't had a chance to get to Williamsburg or Crown Heights for this year's celebrations. So I went back to the shots from last year and found some that I had missed noticing. The first two were at the
street festival in Williamsburg:

And this was a shot I processed last year but since I wasn't happy with the results I reworked it:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sukkat 2015

The joyous festival of Sukkat follows the serious introspective intensity of Yom Kippur. For seven days Jews eat meals in a hut covered with grass or stalks so that the stars can be seen. And during the morning service each day the ritual of the Lulav and Etrog are carried out (described here much more authoritatively than I care to do). The first two days are considered major holidays, so I was not permitted to photograph in the sukkat on those days, but later this week there's really good opportunity. The day after Sukkat ends, the holiday of Simchat Torah is celebrated. It's a joyous day of dancing and reading the Torah. The day commemorates the reading of the final chapter of the Torah, at which point the scrolls are re-rolled and reading continues with the first chapter of Genesis. I've never been permitted to photograph the event because it too is a major holiday.

It's traditional to gather as families or groups that worship together to partake of a holiday meal on the eve of the first day of Sukkat.

Preparing the Lulav before the holiday begins:

Discussing the latest in holiday fashion:

Setting up the tables for the extended family:

Reciting the blessing over the holiday candles:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Picasso at MoMA

Not my usual subject matter for this blog, but I had the chance to go to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC to see the Picasso Sculptures on exhibit. Picasso is one of my favorites. I'm always overwhelmed with his prodigious output. Many of the smaller pieces were in plexiglass cases and so were difficult to photograph. Here's four of the larger pieces:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Three Rabbis

A few weeks ago I attended a hasidic wedding. The event was rich with images and in quite a few cases I got several interesting shots of the same people from a slightly different angle or a few moments apart. Sitting at the head table of the 'cocktail' hour before the ceremony was a grouping of rabbis with interesting expressions. I like all three shots. But posting them helps to see which one stands out more than the others. Well okay .... I just realized that the first shot has four rabbis in it, so shoot me ......

Sunday, September 20, 2015


The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the Ten Days of Repentance. On Rosh Hashanah (New Year) we ask G-d to inscribe us in the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) the book is sealed. But G-d can only forgive our sins agains him after we have sought out and made amends to the people in our lives who we have wronged. That's our job during the intervening days. There's also a ritual of redemption that is not mentioned in either the Torah or the Talmud, but seems to have crept into Jewish practice sometime around the Ninth Century CE. It's called Kaparot.

The practice involves transferring our sins to a live chicken by swinging it over our heads three times and reciting a particular prayer each time. The chicken is then killed by a kosher butcher and then donated to feed a needy family. Only a small fraction of Jews today use a live animal. Most use coins then donate the money to the needy as an act of tzedakah. The animal practice was never completely integrated into Jewish practice, and in fact was specifically opposed by several Jewish sages, not the least of which was Nachmanides (Ramban). Controversy aside, what is important about the ritual is that we attempt to rid ourselves of sin before the twenty-five hour fast for Yom Kippur.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Chasidic Wedding part 4

A few more shots from the wedding I attended in Boro Park.

The groom flanked by two rabbis:

Rabbi David Feinstein - renown talmud scholar - and his son:

The Groom being escorted to the chupa by his father (on the left) and future father-in-law:

Under the chupa:

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Shofar

The significance of the two holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rests on our desire to recount our sins before G-d and ask for forgiveness. We were given the capacity to sin, and G-d wants us to choose the the 'good' path. But He also wants us to be humble enough to admit when we have sinned and ask for forgiveness.

We blow the shofar  to recall the shofar blowing that accompanied our original acceptance of the Torah and remind G-d of Israel's acceptance of it, so that G-d forgives us all our sins and inscribes us for a year of goodness and life. The sound of the shofar is a call from G-d to his people to gather and participate in this process, kind of a wakeup call to bring us out of our spiritual slumber; but it is also a call from the people to hearken G-d to listen to our repentance and forgive us.

The shofar is such an important part of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah that the day is also called Yom Teruah which means 'day of the shofar blast'. The first mention of the shofar in the Torah is in the story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and in fact, it is that story that is read during the Torah service on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is also mentioned in the story of Joshua  who circled the walls of Jericho with seven priests blowing ram's horns for seven days which caused the walls tumble down.

The shofar is blown one hundred times on each of the two days of Rosh Hashanah.  Ir's a very difficult instrument from which to coax a meaningful sound. There are three different blasts: Tekiah -  an unbroken last of about three seconds, Shevarim - a Tekiah broken into three segments, Teruah - nine rapid fire blasts, and Tekiah Gedolah - A triple Tekiah lasting at least nine seconds, but many shofar blowers (called Tokea) will go significantly longer (just to show off).

The shofar is also sounded on Sukkoth, which occurs several weeks after Rosh Hashanah. I had the opportunity to photograph a rabbi performing that ritual several years ago on the next to last of the eight days of Sukkoth, called Hashanah Rabbah. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are such high holy days taking photographs are frowned upon (actually not permitted at all). So, being Jewish, I've never been able to capture the ritual during a service. It's been a handicap for me for several other  important holidays (Simchat Torah and Pesach in particular) that I need to document for my ongoing project. There was a performance in Central Park at the Naumberg bandshell yesterday to re-enact the    shofar blowing ritual. I went in to see and photograph it, and when I talked with the rabbi he clearly told me he was not happy about my taking pictures. So I was caught in a conundrum. Should I or shouldn't I. I should note that there were many other people attending that were snapping away shots on their mobile devices, but that is not offered as any kind of justification for me to do so.

However, I want to note, not defensively, that over the years of me working this project and recently of me posting the images on the internet I've received a lot of feedback. Every once in a while I get a response from an anti-Semitic bigot, or an arab/muslim casting aspersions on me, my people, and my work. But overwhelmingly, the comments and emails that I get are positive. The comments on Facebook and Google+ are very often from non-Jews, including a significant number of arab/muslims, who have never seen images like mine or who know nothing of the traditions and rituals of Judaism and they thank me for enlightening them. Most importantly though, and I offer this as reason for doing the entire project and in particular for making the effort to attend the ceremony yesterday, I get responses from viewers who are Jewish but who are deeply assimilated or lapsed in their spiritual practice. They tell me that the photographs brought them back to their childhood and they are reminded of being with their parents or grandparents on those occasions, and that the photographs stirred deep memories in them. I can't describe my feelings when I get a response like that.

In the final analysis though, I had to respect the rabbi's request. To do the work on this project for so many years and to go into the depth that I aim for, I have to respect the wishes of the people I photograph. So for what it's worth, here's some images of the people who attended the Central Park shofar blowing:

This kid was really amazing. As difficult as it is to blow the shofar, he could really let loose with a mighty blast:

The tokea showing his shofar to the audience. The ram's horn, pictured above is the usual instrument in use by descendants of Eastern Europeans. The curled horn, shown below, from an ibis is most often used by sephardic Jews.

And a great time was had by all: